Ozarks, a slight return (in the numbering of the days)
The Ozarks stand above me to the north. The great rumply guardians from that Missouri invasion that no one fears. I do not actually live among the hills myself. I live just east of the Arkansas river valley on a slighter hill, a hummock really that rises rounded above the valleys to the west and south of me. As I have said before, this home lumpiness is called Round Mountain. Aggrandizement at its finest. We live on almost the exact top dome of it, with my trees, my intermittently filled hardwood swamp. Across the river to the west are the Ouachitas. But head anywhere northward and we enter the old and worn Ozarks. In the minds of geologists, the Ozarks and Ouachitas are not one great category. They have distinct appearances, ages, vagaries and warps. The Ozarks run on up into southern and middle Missouri. They are certainly Palezoic. Translation: damn old. Before the rise and fall of all the dinosaurs. Before the first bird. Far before the blink in time that we, the upright thinkers have come to dominate. Deposited on ancient sea bottoms and lifted and rumpled up to be worn down by time and tide to what they are now. I live at about 560 feet upon my own hummock. These mountains range from my level to close to 2000 feet in places. Nothing is cutting too far into the ozone but the landscape is still holding a deep and finely aged beauty once you wander amongst its rivers and valleys down at flower level beneath all its trees.
We are there now, for a week away, in these Ozarks. A small township next to a very large dammed lake. We have been to this hidden set of cabins many times. We have been here through three different owners at least. With the current ones being somewhat more industrious than their predecessors. The husband of the pair being a Swiss trained chef. Both being dog lovers and cat adopters. Through them all, we still love coming to stay at this simple place, that now has a restaurant chef far above anyone in the neighboring five counties or more. We meander our way slowly from our home and arrive at mid to late afternoon. We had been weaving through small thunderstorms on the way, our luggage protectively bagged in the back of the truck. We stopped to do this hastily at one overlook stop while large raindrops taunted us. Once arrived and checked in and out on the back deck that overlooks the lake, a booming storm finally catches up to us. The temperature, which was already 5 or 6 degrees below our home temps, falls rapidly in the new breezes and wetter darknesses. I shelter under the small dormer at the back door and keep the room open to the world. Feeder bands of rain track and curtain across the lake to our north. Hail begins to bang on the metal roof and bounce across the deck. Pea sized and then marble sized, it is a pleasure to watch it try to whiten out the pine needles and the sparse grass below us. The storms move east to west, heading off towards the north edges of Mountain Home and then into Missouri if they stay together long enough.
The sun breaks out on us and over the lake afterward. Shearing bands of sunlight beam and step across the water. The birds quickly resuming what they need to be doing: making more birds. Hummers and thrashers made from the light. Through several steps of course. Where these hummingbirds hid in the driving hail, I donít know. It must be a lesson learned early in a short hummer life. Or perhaps most hummers living but a year or two, never see ice fall from the sky. Hail being a true apocalypse when you weigh barely more than a quarter. Iíve heard it sometimes kills pheasants in Kansas and Nebraska. Birds that weigh pretty close to 400 times the featherweight rank of a hummer. Pretty sure a hummer weighs less than a pheasantís severed head. Though I have not tested this comparison directly. Frankly, Iím sorry I brought the image up. It does seem, though, that the Ruby-throats plunge into the dense row of honeysuckle behind our cabin for everything else: for general cat sightings, for the shear comfort of the nectar-filled shade. In the rain and afterward the thick scent of honeysuckle wafts up in waves, now and then surprising you with its power. Then it dissipates again. This is certainly the densest floral nectar bank in the immediate area. I surmise the females are even nesting down inside this density. They seem to appear out of nowhere, moving from suckle to suckle, avoiding the sight of any lurking males. Especially the one dominator who likes to perch up on the power line above the whole flower world and watch for trouble. Or make trouble. Most of the day, it seems to me, he is a busy, busy boy.
Cedars to our left. Hickories across the road straight north, the closest of a whole fall off slope of trees running down to the lake shore. A catalpa, a sugar maple behind us along with a mix of pines to our right. One giant pine cornering the southeast point of our cabin and looming with its great cache of pine cones. I habitually peel off some wide plates of its outer bark when I stand close and stare at it. It has layers and layers of these bark sheets. This pine tree likely being older than I am despite their rapid growth. Everywhere I go, I watch for trees that seem older than I am. Compared to trees, I am often an infant. Which can be comforting and daunting at the same time. There is a large slow-growing Red bud at the next cabin over. I never have any idea how old Red buds are. Though the one in my yard is about five I would say and maybe nine foot tall with a three inch trunk.
I quickly assess the whole sonic landscape from my chair on the deck. Cardinals of course, with one close and just west of us. A Brown Thrasher who sings near and frequently and may be nesting in the honeysuckle bank as well. Thrashers like these low and dense places. Jays are making their way back and forth from our trees to the ones down the hill and across the road. There is a singing Orchard Oriole who seems to range mostly to the northeast. Distant cuckoos, some constantly passing and far off Crows, both American and Fish, brachyrynchos and ossifragus. Mockingbirds up the road to the east and the west.
Early morning, I leave before anyone is up. Out at dawn and headed southeasterly across the White River to the Sylamore forest lands. I find a trailhead parking area that first morning just by chance. It is not mapped. I whip in there with the woods still dusky dark. I was looking for somewhere to hear some of the Ozark nesting Worm-eating Warblers. They do not nest in my own home woods. I did not hear any of them in passage this spring and never have really. I found one once in my front yard in the fall in the rain, sneaking quietly through. It is an odd little warbler really. It likes deciduous woodlands and steep slopes with patches of dense underbrush. I have never seen them anywhere but the Ozarks and on Mount Magazine in the higher Ouachitas. They nest on the ground and their song is a sizzling vibrato. Several of our warblers do nest on the ground. I have never found the nest of the Worm-eating. They tend to have roofs over their well-hidden nests of skeletonized leaves, so you must see the birds in the process of building, going into the nest to make such a discovery. And now is the time. Hal Harrison, the author of Field Guide to Birdsí Nests, my forty-year-old but reliable standby nest book, never found one either.
I step onto the trail and after two steps a large, hawkish sized birds loops up from the trail just in front of me and flutters over to a pine stump that is about six feet tall and just six inches in diameter. It sits up there, wings folded, balanced. I saw the white windows in its tail when it flew and I know it is our Chuck-wills-widow (CWW). One of our Nightjars or Goatsuckers (donít ask, and no they donít). We also have the Whip-poor-will (WPW). Both are named for their call, as are many in this group around the world. It is a surprising fact that many people think that the call of the Chuck-wills-widow is actually the call of the Whip-poor-will bird. The CWW being much more common in areas that are not pristine woodland or mountains. Suburbs and parks host CWW. WPW donít care much for intrusion. The call of the WPW is relentless sometimes. The CWW more leisurely paced and often just a soothing background noise. This particular guy stays on his perch. He did not wing feign after flushing but I still look carefully for eggs. They are placed directly on the ground with no real nest around them. Nearly as invisible sometimes as Killdeer eggs. Both sexes incubate the eggs. The bird likely feeds along and over this back highway stretch at night, away from traffic. It is a lovely open corridor to scoop insects. He should have a mate already but perhaps he is still crying in the dark for one. I try to take his picture but the light is too low, even leaning against a tree trunk. He begins to make odd growling barking bouncing noises like he is chiding me for being in his area. Goatsucker cursing, I suppose. The nightbird gabbling at the dawn straggler. I may be missing some secrets about managing the darkness. I donít know. Tell me a beautiful thing, catcher of moths on the wing. I know I have never heard this sound from a CWW before. He keeps it up until I move closer and then he flutters over to another perch. He has made my morning already.
Down the trail, I cross through pines and then turn west. I find some blooming fire pink with its five-pointed stars. And then soon after I hit the denser hardwoods with the light expanding behind me. Tanagers speak in whistled conversation. The trail seems to head upwards slightly and there I find Pileated Woodpeckers working the high trees. Tap-tapping and echo calling back and forth to each other in that wild jungle noise. I can see brighter gaps in the cover walking through stones, and I hear the first Worm-eating Warblers. The high fast sizzle burns close by and then I hear a chip that I donít know and I kneel and make some pishing wren sounds to bring up the first Worm-eaters. They are painted with creams and grays and browns. The tones of fallen leaves. With stripes on the skull cap like it wears a small biking helmet. They are truly neutral colored overall, like Swainsonís Warblers, though they choose the absolute opposite in habitat preferences. No flashy golds or reds or chestnuts on these birds. I find that I am standing on boulder strewn slope that falls towards a slow bend below in the White River. A pair of Worm-eaters comes to give me a closer look. Both are chipping, excitedly. I watch for any nesting materials in their beaks, but they just seem interested in me as invader. I can hear more calling to the right and down and to my left. With a few hops and a tree assist, I am standing on a rock prominence leaning out over the river.
Still early, with haze over the clear water, I can hear just about everything in the valley. The far side of the river is private land. There I hear some cows lowing and moaning. On my side Pileateds cry out still in several directions. A noise comes up from across the river that sounds like a trapped or wounded lion of some sort. But I realize it is a donkey braying. I donít know donkeys or their messages and thus it is a bit lost on me. The motion of the river itself is too far below me to make much sound. There are no rapids. Just steady clear waters moving north and east over all those stones. There are no jets, no cars above us or beyond. Perhaps a dirt road cut through the woods on the far side. For several days up here in this county I see only one single jet trail. Some of the trees around me on the slope are truly beautiful and old: oaks and pines. They scraggle and diminish out here on the rocks with me, sunshocked and windblown, I suppose. The trail continues downward and south toward the river. But that hillside is for another day. On the way back, I find 3 or 4 more Worm-eating Warblers. I stop and listen to the calls every time one sings close to me. I need to try and remember the sound again. And then I walk away.
Back at the cabins I wake the sleepy heads up. And I make some coffee. Delaying my coffee enjoyment until I return may be the hardest part of the morning walks. But out in the woods, I forget. Back on the deck, coffee in my nose, I watch the locals again. The honeysuckle banks steam and waft: coffee and then honeysuckle, coffee again. The hummers ply the blooms. I remember pulling the flower pistils backwards through honeysuckle blooms onto my tongue for that drop of nectar inside them, all the way back to the time of early childhood with my grandmother in charge. How sweet it was. What it must taste like on the feathered, split and tubular tongue of a hummer. The jays are coming and going again. And I try and find where in the downhill hickory leaves the nest is hidden. They donít seem to go to the same spot. Jay nests are usually close to the trunk on a main split and are well hidden. These birds make very twiggy clumps. I do see one jay dive down below the deck and get just within the boundary of the honeysuckle banks. A thrasher immediately challenges him, flutters him off and chases him out of sight. The thrasher nest is definitely in there close somewhere.
After the noon sun is up later, I walk down the highway just behind the cabins that winds down toward the river. It was always good for the north country flowers. Though it passes private land in many places, the road banks are never mowed on this small side highway. People rarely care about a man with a camera who seems oddly focused on butterflies and flowers. Sensitive briar grows pink in the ditches. A few cloudywings flutter there. Soon I am in the wild Larkspur, Missouri Primrose, showy primrose, the tall spikes of the Yellow Coneflower. This coneflower only grows up here in these four closely clustered counties, mostly near limestone. Also skullcap, several mint species, some more butterflies including the nectaring Pipevine Swallowtails. More Brown Thrashers sing above me. Indigo Buntings smack and hide. Penstemon, Indian paintbrush and, beneath a powerline, a clear pool of water with toads calling. Here and there a Monarch is frisking the milkweed plants. I see no snakes. I stoop and sniff bloom after bloom standing in flowers sometimes above my knees.
Next morning, I go down the road beyond the trail where my Nightjar resides. I was tempted to flush him again but I deferred. Off to my left was a valley that was filled with grounded cloud, like a fire had settled and died, filling the whole landscape up with a white foam up to the ridge tops. I pass a small pull out but see nothing of a sign. I circle back and find there is just enough room for about two cars in the shade in this spot. There is a small spike of a sign which says OHT, the Ozark Highland Trail. And I am in. It is cedar and fog, stone and dawn bird song. I am away from the slopes where the Worm-eaters sing, away from the river on this side of the highway. This trail likely goes for miles beyond where I can go right now, this one morning, unless today is the day I decide to just walk off into the mountains for good. I will decide on the way.
I find some milkweed vine with their chocolate/purpled bloom clusters. The place is rich with ferns and mossy rock. I hear Indigo Buntings off in some unseen opening to the left. And then on the trail I find a very aged looking Box Turtle. The Three-toed Box, Terrapene carolina triunguis, is easily one of my favorite Arkansas animals. My wife and I have helped countless of them cross the highways in Faulkner county in the Spring months when they seem to be on the move. We have brought some youngsters back to our own home woods. We had already been doing this again this year before we headed north for this break from our normal routine. On my walk the morning before, with my Nightjar, I had seen one young Box about 3 to 4 inches long in the shell. On that trail, in the rich woods, it did not need my help going on with its life. These small terrapins grow rapidly for the first 4 to 5 years to reach sexual maturity. That little one yesterday was probably not there yet, to this driving instinctual power, to this seeking of the opposite sex.
But here on this Highland trail, this first turtle I see is striking and large, red and yellow spotted on the forefeet and head with the red eyes of a male. I have pondered the age of these small things before. And have never personally killed one on the highways, shortening their life. I really have no excuse for those drivers that do, except distraction. And that may be an explanation, but it is not an excuse. I find people take the lives of these turtly things too lightly sometimes. I respect them like trees. But this male by size must be one of the oldest I have ever seen. I stoop and try to get his picture without disturbing him much. Though, what must he think of a flash of light from a trail giant? Nonetheless, he never retracts his head. He just gives me the look, the patient eye. Tolerating me, the leering youngster. Boxies live to 70 and beyond. There are records of hundred year old Three-toes. Apparently most that make it past the first 5 years and achieve sexual maturity live to at least 45. Nothing eats them really but some strong jawed dog, perhaps a coyote would, if it was worth the jaw work required. I suspect mostly the highway takes them. And though this old guy is just one hundred yards maybe through the trees from the roadway, he may never have crossed it in his long life. Coming to the edge one day and casting a look across that expanse that just did not look promising, he just turned back. The world over there not worth the hard gray heat of the highway, the weird rumble he could feel in the base of his shell. Who knows what old faded head has seen? I leave him to his long life.
And then not a hundred steps ahead on the trail I find another Box. This one shell faded and face faded. The eye does seem to have a tinge of red. So maybe another male but he looks even older than the last. Have they ever met, living a half a football field apart? You can see that this one has worn the red spots right off of his neck and head. He may be again older than me. A shame they donít have visible rings like a tree cut, to age them. This one is also fearless, and the head never retracts. In all my many rescues and in my home turtles, I have never seen one looking quite this old. I bid this one good bye and I work my way further down the trail, with Cardinals calling, more Buntings. And I come to a place to stop. To turn back. Turns out it is not the day I walk off to my woodland death. I will save this trail now for a longer walk someday. And then as I am coming back towards the truck, I find another trail branch that heads off to the left just past where I had parked. It appears to cross over the highway and head toward the river west of here. I smile.
Coffee again. The wife and children up. Josh and Amelia want to be shuttled to Gunner Pool today for some fishing and creek walking. It is a place I took my daughter to several times when she was a child. She loved it then and has returned many times with Josh to explore the clear spring fed creeks. I will drive them there and return in the afternoon. My wife staying at the cabins. We wind through Calico Rock and south to the wild road through the hills to Gunner. We stop for butterflies, wildlife, bird song, overlooks, handsome trees, flowers, interesting rocks. It is definitely stop-and-start. I tell Josh to be on the watch for snakes. And soon enough we see one stretched across the rocky road. I bail out and block the right side of the snakeís exit and the big snake coils and raises itself off the road. It tries to turn, and Josh quickly has it by the back third of the long body from behind. It is a four-footer. And a beautifully marked Western Rat Snake. It never strikes. Josh proudly holds it with the head draped on the ground. Its great tongue feeling the air for everything it can. So wild out here, it may never have encountered strange two-legged kidnappers before. The north Arkansas Rat Snakes and more etched and blotched with the markings of a younger snake even into adulthood. We take his picture and release him in the leaf litter on the side of the road he was headed towards.
At the pools after an ascent and then a zagging descent into the rich valley we pull into the rough parking area. There are other people nearby, a camping tent. It is a popular swimming area. The water, as always, very cool and clear. So glassy, I can see the fish in their swimming groups anywhere they ply. A Phoebe calls and I see him go up to the tall rock cliffs jutting above us. A wild nesting Phoebe, clearly. Somewhere on the rock ledges, his nest. I walk out on the rocks while my daughter and Josh get their things together. Butterflies are zinging up and down the creek. And I follow one to find a puddling group of more swallowtails than I have probably seen all year. I call my daughter over. And we both try and take their picture without flushing them. The bulk of the flutterers are Spicebush Swallowtails, who feed in the Ozarks on Spicebush and Sassafras, both fairly common plants in these valleys. A few Giant Swallowtails dive in and out. I see there are some butterfly bodies in the bottom of the pile, possibly killed by a frolicking dog or a raccoon, downed by something, or just senescence, perhaps. ďIn the final end of me, I will die on a beautiful creek.Ē Perhaps they even committed some sort of kamikaze suicide against the pale white stones. Whatever happened, this just brings in more butterflies to the spot. Wondering how something that can fly for just two months or so could crash on purpose. Is this worship or recycling? I am not sure. Dark or light, it is a fluttering wonder, whatever the reasons.
Up the hillside, I hear vireos and Acadian Flycatchers. Summer Tanagers call. Josh wanders off to fish. Amelia follows in her wading shoes. I leave them until our later meeting time and drive back to some other points on the creek. I find some striking Yucca spikes in bloom. Kingfishers work the glassy waters. Beech trees loom and filter the afternoon light with some kind of magic flourish. It is a quiet, wild place. Amazingly unknown to many people. But not far from the popular caverns and the music town of Mountain View.
Back with Vicki, on the cabin deck, we watch the Turkey Vultures work the warm air currents over the lake. Things die. And then things wing in that direction. Another rain storm passes, sheeting legs of white rain. The storm rolling east to west again, playing lightning games north of us. Rumbling like a war. The trees in the valley glisten afterward with water droplets. The jays start up immediately afterward in their back and forth travels. We both go later to drive to Gunner and retrieve our youngsters from the pools. Vicki walking out on the rocks to admire the towering cliffs. The Phoebe still talking and perching around us. Josh gave up on fishing at some point and they both just chased damselflies and swam. My daughter is a sucker for baby turtles. She scans for them constantly. She notes the damselflies. It is an awareness I think I actually passed on.
That evening is the night of my birthday. Day 21,915 counting out the leap days. And I find that using a multiplier of 365.25 or just straight counting them out comes to the exact same number. Everyone else is in their cabins or in their reading chairs or beds. I ride the deck in the darkness looking toward the north star which sits almost exactly where it sits from my own front porch at home. Though there it holds its high place through a leaf bordered gap sparkling over the top of a sweetgum tree. The light from that single star older than everything I can see, probably from anywhere nearby, at more than 400 years old. Except the stones, of course. Here on my wooden deck ship, I am elevated above the body of the lake which is reflecting the stars and the passing aircraft. Captain of my own imaginary ship. Sailing nowhere important. A half moon comes up over my left shoulder inside the pine needles and the heart shaped catalpa leaves. I see a satellite pass. The automobile traffic has diminished on the highway. And I can hear at least three Chuck-wills-widows calling in the night. A mockingbird almost starts and then stops. The hummers sleep. And I salute my glass of red wine towards the speckled galaxy. This one I reside in, among the million others. A sixty-year-old nothingness plying the sky with some gratefulness on this one night. Night being relative, as all things are. The galaxy knows nothing of my lights and darks, neither its depths or its numberings, truly or metaphorically. If there is one thing a mass of stars is good at, it is, in the end, inattentiveness. Like an overworked God, shaking his head and looking off, inside the scree of all that desperate unanswered prayer. I just know, this one microbe is grateful for the brief flash of existence I have known so far in this local light and dark, in this turning of my particular home globe. Three fourths of this ride of mine may likely be over, if I am lucky. If I just make it through this one night. And then one more. As always, a star-filled sky and a bottle of red wine are not a combination to be messed with.
Dawn again and I go back to my turnoff for the Highland trail and track down to the spur I found before. It crosses the highway, unseen to passing vehicles. I stand on the center stripe and imagine the view of a turtle, the distant rumble, the urgency. But there are no cars, no turtles down the long stretch I see to the south. I am on the Matley camp trail by the signage. And it is headed toward another part of the White River. On the map this zone looks steep. And the map does not lie. I pass into a part of the trail surrounded by the bright red and yellow blooms of Spigelia, Indian Pink. They stand on either side of the trail as it slopes downward. After that I am staring into the treetops below me as the trail begins zagging downward in sharp hairpin cut backs. I find a hand made bench on the upper trail. It looks out into the trees. And all things are quiet except the birds: tanager and woodpecker, vireo and warbler. There is no early morning wind. With the first trail cuts, I am moving through limestone formations with small caves and overhangs. One must step down hand cut stairs over some fine stone work. Ferns of several kinds spread over the limestone boulders. I see the creeping fern and some more black stemmed maidenhair. And, of course, here in all this, I find another Box Turtle heading up the path that I am descending. In my half-ass, donít-really-know, seen-a-lot-of-Boxies method of aging, I would guess she is 20 to 25 years old. Today she seems to have business on the roof of the world. This might be her first exploration at this altitude. ďTo hell with the river, I am going to see where the rain comes from.Ē Born near the shifting riverside sands she has decided that today is the day to climb the mountain. She is hard up the best part of the hill and cruising toward all the answers and here suddenly is a looming and stumbly giant in her way. Bulbous and multicolored, this giant moves out of her way and waves his hand sadly up the trail, with a flourish. ďGood luck,Ē I say.
I pass bench number two. And I note the Umbrella Trees nearby. One of my favorite Ozark trees, though they donít grow to great size. With leaves as long as a hikerís arm, they do like it cool and wet and steep. Today I do as well. I sit each bench and listen. Once again, I am in Worm-eating Warbler territory. They sizzle behind me. Pileateds call down slope. I think I can hear the river but I may be imagining it. The sound of water in my ears, in my mind. Oh, to have this wooded view of falloff mountainside behind my house. I have trees and a creek. But this is pure Ozark highland spectacular. I turn back for the cabin at this third bench and wend my way again back through the limestone juttings. Coffee awaits.
In the afternoon, to ward off the youngsterís urge to go back to Gunner Pool, I suggest we go back and walk the full trail down to the river at Matley camp. Josh agrees, thinking fishing should be the end reward for any fine trail walk. And he is a Geologist, so the limestone and bedded rock will also keep him going. We pass the Spigelia. It deserves repeated admiration. It is given some. We find again amazingly the Box Turtle still working her way up the mountainside. I am tempted to haul her up top if we find her on the way back. I count the benches and we sit the third one again, listening. My daughter cocks her head at the Pileated cries. After this, the trail does get even more switchback rich and is lined with impressive trees. Probably never cut or thinned on this steep incline. We do finally begin to hear actual river noises and human activity on the other side of the river. Near the flattened bottom of the trail we see old concrete picnic tables. Evidence of the old camp, apparently still used by the riverine travelers. We find a new outhouse, busy with wasp nests, but far younger than the tables and grill stands that really look older than I am. Am I beginning to sort things into those older and those younger than myself?
The river is wide and clear. The shoreline walkable. Butterflies are aloft. There is a sealed piece of pipeware hanging from a tree that is asking you to insert your comments about your Matley camp experience. We laugh at the thought but there is pen and paper inside. Josh begins throwing casts into the deep mid-river. It would require swimming to cross here. Rocky bottomed and tree lined, it is likely not a visited spot by hikers often but is a riverine stop for sure. Kayakers and canoeists, surely have a picnic break here. I find some of my old friends the robber flies while I am wandering with my camera and a pair of Bellís Roadside Skippers. We can hear thunder off to the south. And we begin to worry about ascending that zigzag slope upward in a driving thunderstorm. Overhangs and roots, stones and turtles, the obstacles you want on a nice hike but not beneath the washing rainfall of early summer. Collecting our gear we climb back out and up surely one of the finer trail spurs off the Ozark Highland Trail.
The next day we pack up outside. And I watch the jays one more time. Finding, finally, that the nest is right there in the cedar tree next to the porch we have been sitting on for days. They werenít leaving, they were coming back to our cabin yard. We leave the Whispering Pines behind that day to head west to Eureka Springs. For a whole different world environment. This is not only the week of my birthday but also the week of the Anniversary of my marriage to V. And 34 years ago, on the day after we were married, we stayed in the Palace Hotel in the upper end of the valley within what is the unique town of Eureka Springs. 26 years old, what did I know then? Way less than I thought I did. And Eureka hasnít changed much from my perspective. The upper end being far quieter than the stretches downtown that drop off below the Palace. We dodge more rain on our journey and it is raining hard at our arrival. The streets are rolling with clear runoff, Eureka being a downhill kind of place. The parking zone is below the hotel, 90 steps exactly down a boardwalk through the trees. We unload out front and park down below and Josh and I run the 90 steps up. I donít recall if this was a walkway that was here 34 years ago. There must have been some means of climbing the slope from below but the aging memory is blank there. This red painted stairway with a gazebo two thirds of the way up appears too new to be older than my marriage though. There are some very old trees on this hillside next to the hotel which may have been here at my birth however.
The rooms are huge and full of windows. Some high up and some facing out onto the stone sidewalks out front. The bath and dressing suite are as large as I remember. My brain having trouble reconciling all the information. What is old; what is new. Fruit and champagne entertain us while the rain dies down. The sun comes out. We are here for some city life I suppose.
I slip out at dawn with some coffee. There is a statue of a child launching a bullfrog on the first level of steps. This is among potted flowers, which appear to be well cared for. Birds sing over the slopes in several directions. I go down to sit in a gazebo chair to watch the action. Fifty steps below me, I can see someoneís outside patio with some private sitting chairs, otherwise I am looking into trees and the old stone wall of the Palace. An decaying foundation is covered with Virginia Creeper to my right. I hear Acadian Flycatchers. If you live in a town and you can hear Acadian Flycatchers, you are probably okay. Also Red-eyed Vireos. Somewhere an Indigo Bunting and Summer Tanagers. City Crows caw at several distances. And in my several gazebo visits, many times I have crow visitations. They always seem to bend or lean over or back on their perches to give me the eye. Checking my status. Crows apparently can recognize individual human faces. They may be looking for some particular local troublemaker. Iím not one yet, but apparently I bear watching. Whenever the crows are nearby, the jays are nervous and they follow them around. Crows are notorious egg eaters, nest raiders. Black demon birds, no doubt, in the mind of a jay. But I canít tell if these black crow birds are hunting or just being inquisitive. Maybe they are always on the watch this time of year. When the jays are around the vireos follow them. Jays also eating the eggs of smaller birds. The vireos making that constant little mewling sound which sounds like worry, like nervousness. Nothing like their normal whistled song. Hierarchies are ranked within just this little patch of sloped woodland.
Thirty-four years ago, my wife and I would have walked the city streets after coffee. The same as today. I honestly donít think they have changed much, this upper valley. Certainly, the homes across from the Palace look antique and quite the same. I must have an old photo somewhere at my home, tucked away in an album. We would have just finished Medical school back then. We would be headed for San Antonia. Graduation, marriage, moving across state lines all in rapid fire succession. So, it is hard to imagine we werenít distracted. I had been away from birds for four years at that time. I made one trip to the Grand Canyon by car on a break during the four years of med school. Otherwise, I forgot about birds for the only stretch that I hope I have to experience. So, likely back then I may have been less aware of them just from the disuse of my ears. Walking now, I am reattuned. Have been for at least thirty of those years. I hear Rough-winged Swallows over the street near the Post Office, which is very close to the Palace. A swallow perches on the power line above us, holding a very long strand of grass. She seems to be watching my wife and I, hesitant to show me where in the wall of stone ahead of us she was going to place this critical fiber. She cannot trust me not to be a climber, a raider myself. She eventually just drops the long strand, perhaps because it was just too much, a wrong choice to begin with. And off she goes.
Down into the valley, the humans grow more numerous. Early in the day, it is not crowded but peopled nonetheless. Other coffee seekers, breakfast stalkers. I lose the thought of birds. Outside the Post Office, I note they have the largest Gingko tree I have ever seen, anywhere. It must be something spectacular in October. It is a green beautiful thing now. These Asian trees flutter even in light breezes. I donít recall seeing this one 34 years ago. But they are slow growing trees for sure. There is music playing in the park downtown. People gathering there. We see some of the shops that were definitely there the day after we were married. Others, we are not so sure. Morrisonís gallery is gone. Souvenir shops abound. There is one bookstore, quirky, still surviving just selling actual books in this digital world. The day after we were married, the internet was an unknown thing. It was seven years until its arrival. We had to go through our medical training using books and microfilm, paper diagrams, with the actual sick and injured at hand. It was 14 years before the first iphone. Now on the street, there was no momentary view where someone wasnít holding up a phone for a picture or a selfie. The world is wired now and photo mad. I still consider my phone mostly an annoyance. A way to exchange brief messages with my wife and daughter. I carry a real camera when I am after photos, though it is digital. Film has gone the way of movie attendance and paper maps and newsprint. We walk further. We gawk at fools. They gawk back at the odd old guy who doesnít seem to have a phone.
Morning time again and I am in my gazebo shelter, shaded and cool, the streets deserted until I see a car pull up above me and a man older than myself gets out with a tripod and a real camera. Like he is there to prove me wrong about people. I like him. He walks with a bounce. He assesses the morning light and the trees and moves up the street setting up his tripod and shooting steps and plants and walkways. He has the careful eye. A man getting a newspaper (!) from the nearby pay-and-grab box says hello and calls the photographer by name. It is locals up here in the top of the valley. Only a few shops up and beyond the Palace and it is then all residential. Newspaper man is having a morning cigar. He may own the art gallery next door. I watch photo man work his way up the street. Meanwhile, my crows are trying to get my attention. They think they are being ignored. The lady down below is also having a smoke on her patio. I am the outsider here, odd man out. Coffee drinking cameraman hiding in the tree shade.
We have my late birthday dinner at one of our favorite restaurants that is just a road turn or two down from the Palace. It did not exist 34 years ago. Or the room existed, but I have no idea what was in it. We ate there on our last visit to Eureka, however and now we will be permanent guests for each and every future visit. At least until they are gone. It is high end food, a beautiful bar: we hope they make it. Not your average tourist town food. The waitress laughs at my jokes. The sign of a good waitress. For they are not necessarily good jokes. I think you understand at this point. She brings a chocolate dessert of my choosing with a single candle amidst the chocolatiness. We smile together at age and the sustained wisdom of eating chocolate. She nods her head.
My wife and I on the morning walk the next day. The downward roadway again. We stop to talk to the gardener in charge of all the stony garden patches around this upper part of the city. There are many. We ask about people dropping trash and he says really, up here, it is not that bad. Keeping enough water on the garden patches, that is the tough work. Making the drive over from his home town which is not in Eureka. The flowers look good. We tell him. He thanks us. He silently weeds while we head out, stooping in the dirt, trying to beat the heat. Above him, I see someone sleeping up on the steep stone steps, his bike parked nearby. Just coming through town perhaps. That valley climb would make anyone sleepy. Maybe escaping something or headed toward some lone destiny that everyone will someday know. Maybe just sleeping off that long ride. One never knows.
I see my postwoman on the last day, sitting in her postal van with her bare feet propped up on the steering wheel for her lunch. I give her the thumbs up. She has a barricade across the lot entrance. It is her patch of the world for now. The swallows sweep all of us. The giant ginkgo shivers. I still wonder at its age. I will have to look for a photo from 34 years ago of this stretch of grass next to the post office. At home, recently, we finally had the dead hickory taken down out in front of our house before it crumpled over onto something important, something younger and delicate. It was down to a thirty-foot spire with just a few side stumps. A shadow of its former self, it had been eaten and probed for more than 12 years by every kind of beast. My Pileated Woodpeckers will miss it, if woodpeckers truly get nostalgic about old trees they loved for most of their lives. ďOh, the grubs I used to find there.Ē When I examined the top of the cut stump, I counted out at least fifty years of rings. Likely it was missing some of the outer ones, eroded by these same beetles and the fast tracks of red-faced lizards. It was older than me at the time it died and now I have surpassed it. Any tree I plant in its place will certainly outlive me, bar lightning or fire or men with saws in the dark of night. I have more worries than a tree when it comes to senility, when it comes to the wearing away of my outer rings, when it comes to those things that will make me fall over for good. I wonít feed any woodpeckers or support any flowering vines as that hickory did, long after its actual death. We are transient soft things and not much good when we are gone. We donít leave our dead for the carrion birds on a platform anymore or carry our lost ones to some high mountain top and leave them. I do know that it has been a 60 year stretch so far for this particular soft thing. Which is nothing when you draw back to look on the big time lines: the stars, the layered stones, hell, most box turtles, I suppose. And 34 years of marriage is, well, a start, I guess. We are stopping by the native plant nursery on the way home. I am definitely going to buy some more trees anyway, some youngsters. Get them started deep and hopefully safe into that first tender twenty years or so. The starter years, when we donít know anything. When the lightning isnít looking for us and we donít fear it all that much. We donít know what to fear at twenty, especially not expiration dates. I just know something must replace and stand where the old dead hickory stood and take the sunlight. Make it into something better.
Ah, time, is all I can say, you asshole, always trying to tell me something. Reminding me, really, to use the more precise word: to remind. The internet gives an example: ďthe watchtower is a reminder of the days when an enemy might appear at any moment.Ē Telling me again, anyway, for I can be a dunce. Talking of fear once more. But enemies, not so much. Telling me about inattentiveness, out loud, like a greater gabbling goatsucker. It seems to be the word of the month. Attend, my friends, in the older sense of the word. Tick tock, time says, sometimes with an annoyed tone. That seems to be getting louder and building to that certain edge: of high annoyance, of disbelief. "Dammit," comes the accent, "listen" says the shifted voice, because it certainly has told me before.
Hell yes, it has, we all think together. ďPrick up your ears, you tiny thing.Ē But still, I just keep on forgetting. And in my own defense, what else am I to do?
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